Rebellion amongst Economics students?

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Spikymike
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Sep 3 2018 11:48
Rebellion amongst Economics students?

A few years back some students at the UK Manchester University joined up with others to challenge the poor (and frankly boring) content of their lectures and started organising to put pressure on for a change towards a much more 'pluralistic' content in the future. The objective was supposedly for content that better reflected the realities of the current crisis ridden world economy that many economists had failed to even see coming and take on board other views influenced by post-Keynesian, green, feminist and even Marxian analysis. From a communist perspective of course giving an even handed consideration and weight to each of a series of supposedly equally valid or flawed theories wouldn't get us very far in understanding the way the real world of capitalism functions, but then some questioning by students is perhaps preferable to none. At the end of the day this effort written up in a book reviewed here (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/09/the-econocracy-review-joe-earle-cahal-moran-zach-ward-perkins ) was still a group of students looking for a better more helpful professional role as government and business advisors, rather than joining the ranks of pro-revolutionary critics.
The slow response of others amongst the UK university academics has lately resulted in another set of proposals for change in production of the CORE project for University economics teaching. But this hasn't got off to a very good start. Already Michael Roberts, an influential left-wing socialist economist has weighed in with this criticism here: (https://weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1216/rethinking-economics/) but more relevant to my mind would be this fundamental critique of the very start of the CORE project here (https://libcom.org/forums/theory/economists-notes-core-s-economy-unit-1-12082018). That last one might be usefully recommended to any students thinking of starting to study for an economics degree but after reading it they might be better advised to do something else.

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Lucky Black Cat
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Sep 8 2018 17:49

Sounds interesting, Spikymike. I'm usually not interested in what goes on in the academic world, but it would be cool if it became normal to teach Marxist economics to students.

This is a little off topic, but I took an intro economics course in uni. Through the whole course, the point kept being made that left-wing economic reforms would, if taken beyond moderation, end up backfiring. (For example, a large increase in the minimum wage causing inflation or unemployment.)

At the time I was a lefty-liberal who thought of myself as anti-capitalist and socialist, but wasn't really, because I still believed that if we got a lefty government in power who made all the right reforms, capitalism could be made a decent system. The social-democratic delusion.

It was this economics course that finally convinced me that it's impossible to reform capitalism into something worthy of humanity.

The intention of the course was to turn students from dumb, dreamy lefties into responsible centrists. But it turned me into a kick-ass commie, instead. tongue

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AnythingForProximity
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Sep 8 2018 23:16
Lucky Black Cat wrote:
it would be cool if it became normal to teach Marxist economics to students

It is normal (or at least not unusual) in the US at least, though the relevant courses are more likely to be offered by political science rather than economics departments. I fail to see what's cool about it though; it's just recuperation. Presenting Marx's critique of political economy as a thought-provoking alternative to various schools of economics, as just another "intellectual toolkit" to "help make sense of the world around us", is the surest way to deprive it of its revolutionary potential. I'd be very surprised if anyone ever turned into a revolutionary under the influence of a Marxist university course.

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Lucky Black Cat
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Sep 9 2018 03:40

Teaching Marxism in schools is not revolutionary, but I still think it's better that it be taught than not taught, right? It helps keep these ideas alive.

One thing I do worry about, though, is the way that universities seem to be like a vortex sucking in radicals, Marxists, anti-capitalists, etc. and keeping them away from engaging in organizing class struggle.

I don't mean any offense to anyone who has taken an academic career path. I know good people who are academics, and for them, they're just trying to find something that doesn't bore them to death and that provides a good income. So I can't judge them for that. But when taken in aggregate, this is a real problem.

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Noah Fence
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Sep 9 2018 09:04
Quote:
At the time I was a lefty-liberal who thought of myself as anti-capitalist and socialist, but wasn't really, because I still believed that if we got a lefty government in power who made all the right reforms, capitalism could be made a decent system. The social-democratic delusion.

It was this economics course that finally convinced me that it's impossible to reform capitalism into something worthy of humanity.

The intention of the course was to turn students from dumb, dreamy lefties into responsible centrists. But it turned me into a kick-ass commie, instead. tongue

I have a friend that had a remarkably similar experience to you LBC. Though a committed(and I truly mean committed) anarchist now, she still doesn’t seem to have quite expelled the liberal poison from her body! Any tips for how she might do this or are you similarly afflicted?

Mike Harman
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Sep 9 2018 10:40
Lucky Black Cat wrote:
Teaching Marxism in schools is not revolutionary, but I still think it's better that it be taught than not taught, right? It helps keep these ideas alive.

That would be nice but evidence points to the contrary.

David Harvey is one of the best known people for teaching Capital, but he's essentially a social democrat - happy to appear on panels at The World Transformed (a Labour Party conference spin-off) and advocating for alternative currencies. Some discussion of how he teaches Marx badly here: https://libcom.org/library/companion-david-harveys-companion-marxs-capital-chapter-1-critisticuffs

So maybe some people get from Harvey to Marx and radicalised despite Harvey, but likely much more will understand Marxism as a framework for better managing capitalism as a result of learning it in this context (or via Harvey due to his wider platform).

zugzwang
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Sep 9 2018 15:28
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It was this economics course that finally convinced me that it's impossible to reform capitalism into something worthy of humanity.

The intention of the course was to turn students from dumb, dreamy lefties into responsible centrists. But it turned me into a kick-ass commie, instead.

I've had similar experiences with some courses, but in every case I was already hostile to the material (well and to schools and "education" in general since forever; I've always been more inclined to autodidactism). Having to take such courses only made me want to dig deeper to refute whatever bullshit they were teaching and to go beyond their narrow bourgeois thinking and presumptions. I think I read Berkman's What is Anarchism? right after taking some "U.S. Gov course." I'd really just avoid schools all together as far as learning is concerned (well if you can afford to go in the first place in America).

Quote:
Teaching Marxism in schools is not revolutionary, but I still think it's better that it be taught than not taught, right? It helps keep these ideas alive.

Not sure about that. I think Chomsky (who just taught a political science course in Arizona, not to mention the time he's spent at MIT) produces more Bernie Sanders supporters these days than actual anti-capitalists. Richard Wolff is also an American Marxist academic, and I think he's turning more people on to worker cooperatives instead of working class struggle, and he's also said plenty of kind words about Sanders.

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AnythingForProximity
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Sep 9 2018 18:53
Lucky Black Cat wrote:
One thing I do worry about, though, is the way that universities seem to be like a vortex sucking in radicals, Marxists, anti-capitalists, etc. and keeping them away from engaging in organizing class struggle.

Not sure what you mean by that. On the one hand, there is nothing about the university as a workplace that prevents this from happening. For example, for all the jokes contrasting them with "the real proles", graduate students, as well as postdocs, librarians, etc., are still workers, and they do organize and struggle for better working conditions in many places around the US, facing the same obstacles as the rest of the working class in doing so. For instance, there's been a lot of talk about how, after the Trump appointments, the NLRB might overturn the 2016 Columbia case that allowed graduate workers at private universities to unionize. The very fact that such a measure is on the table should indicate that there is plenty of organizing going on at universities, and that the bosses are well aware of the threat it poses.

On the other hand, you're right that one of the functions of the university is to absorb and neutralize forces that might otherwise be hostile to capitalism, and this is true of both theory and individual people. In the latter case, it results in the sad figure of the "radical academic", who doesn't just make a good income doing something that doesn't bore them to death (as you say, nothing wrong with that), but who has actually managed to convince themselves that they are "contributing to the struggle" precisely through their academic work – rather than outside of it, by joining other workers in their organizing efforts. Chomsky, who was mentioned above, doesn't really fit this description, since he famously rejects any connection between his linguistic and political work, but Harvey and many identitarians definitely do.

Mike Harman wrote:
So maybe some people get from Harvey to Marx and radicalised despite Harvey, but likely much more will understand Marxism as a framework for better managing capitalism as a result of learning it in this context (or via Harvey due to his wider platform).

That's my view, too. Anecdotal evidence: I actually took "Marxist economics" in college. As with any course, most people didn't get much out of it, and saw Capital (or rather the assigned chapters thereof) as just another long-ass boring old book they had to get through somehow. Then there was this really smart guy who paid close attention and took the reading seriously. Turned out he was enthusiastic about going to grad school to "apply Marxist ideas" by helping the State develop better "policies". I asked him what he meant by that, and he pretty much started to reinvent social democracy on the spot: "social investment", "more democratic firm ownership" etc.

Also, I honestly don't think we need to worry about "keep[ing] these ideas alive". Marx's critique will remain relevant as long as capitalism continues to exist.

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Lucky Black Cat
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Sep 10 2018 03:35

Shit, so are most Marxist profs actually liberals? sad I guess not a big surprise, though.

AnythingForProximity wrote:
On the other hand, you're right that one of the functions of the university is to absorb and neutralize forces that might otherwise be hostile to capitalism, and this is true of both theory and individual people. In the latter case, it results in the sad figure of the "radical academic", who doesn't just make a good income doing something that doesn't bore them to death (as you say, nothing wrong with that), but who has actually managed to convince themselves that they are "contributing to the struggle" precisely through their academic work – rather than outside of it, by joining other workers in their organizing efforts.

Yeah, this is the point I was trying to get at.

Mike Harman
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Sep 10 2018 09:05

Also someone like Marty Glaberman - he worked in the auto industry for decades, then got a job as an academic in Detroit eventually. But while he probably got some time on the job to write things, he's not known for journal articles or books with academic publishers. Similarly the capital reading group he did with people from the League of Black Revolutionary Workers wasn't a course, but something he organised outside the institution. Not sure what Glaberman thought about his academic work but seems the opposite to a 'radical academic', and given what he thought about union committeemen...

While I did go to college, I didn't do any kind of humanities or social science, so really have no idea what taking those courses is like. I do however pretty regularly read history produced by academics - sometimes books, sometimes journal articles. Now for me if someone has done a load of oral history interviews in 1995 funded by some academic fellowship about a strike (with people who are now dead), for which there is not much other recorded documentation on it, then that is very useful for me as someone who's interested in learning about past struggles. However, those articles are buried in academic journals that unless you pirate them cost $20-30 each to access and are usually extremely dry, or sometimes academic monographs costing $40-90. Or sometimes converted into mass-market history books later on. I do find this stuff infinitely more useful than academic theory, but there's still a tonne of limitations to it.

It also only tends to be useful when people are making available historical information that due to state repression was impossible to document widely at the time - for example the post-1990 histories of the USSR based on the archives (one example would be https://libcom.org/history/1932-vichuga-uprising which was completely buried for 60+ years). Also uncovering history like that isn't restricted to academics.

If we look at CLR James, he was mostly working as a journalist or cricket book editor when he wrote Black Jacobins. So he wasn't a 'radical historian' or a 'radical journalist' he was a journo who was writing a book on the side. Would also expect to see historical research one of the first things to be cut when budgets are squeezed.

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jef costello
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Sep 10 2018 09:33

In the same way as a lot of people become teachers to allow them to keep studying (more so in France, in the UK teachers have no time unless they are in universities) I think radical academics might be doing that as a way of earning money while still learning radical stuff. I think that is fine on a personal level but unless they are doing something else, like has been said above, I don't think it makes much difference.

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Lucky Black Cat
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Sep 11 2018 18:03
Mike Harman wrote:
Now for me if someone has done a load of oral history interviews in 1995 funded by some academic fellowship about a strike (with people who are now dead), for which there is not much other recorded documentation on it, then that is very useful for me as someone who's interested in learning about past struggles. However, those articles are buried in academic journals that unless you pirate them cost $20-30 each to access and are usually extremely dry, or sometimes academic monographs costing $40-90. Or sometimes converted into mass-market history books later on. I do find this stuff infinitely more useful than academic theory, but there's still a tonne of limitations to it.

It also only tends to be useful when people are making available historical information that due to state repression was impossible to document widely at the time - for example the post-1990 histories of the USSR based on the archives (one example would be https://libcom.org/history/1932-vichuga-uprising which was completely buried for 60+ years). Also uncovering history like that isn't restricted to academics.

Good point!

mn8
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Sep 18 2018 10:20
AnythingForProximity wrote:
Lucky Black Cat wrote:
it would be cool if it became normal to teach Marxist economics to students

It is normal (or at least not unusual) in the US at least, though the relevant courses are more likely to be offered by political science rather than economics departments. I fail to see what's cool about it though; it's just recuperation. Presenting Marx's critique of political economy as a thought-provoking alternative to various schools of economics, as just another "intellectual toolkit" to "help make sense of the world around us", is the surest way to deprive it of its revolutionary potential. I'd be very surprised if anyone ever turned into a revolutionary under the influence of a Marxist university course.

To say that it's presented as an 'alternative' is hardly the worst of it. It will probably be recuperated or reduced to some slogans which represent it in terms of bourgeois intellectual categories, rather than being fully expressed. It will hence appear as a diluted form presented through a bourgeois lens, and re-cuperated by the system. Back in the day, academics played an important part in criticising Marxism and trying to colour the popular perception of it in places like the USA.

It's unlikely that it would be 'normal' to teach Marxism, because it will only be a highly distorted Marxism.

Whether you support these movements or do not, it's not something that should be seen as winning Marxism a clear and honest presentation in bourgeois intellectual organs.